School Choice & Charters Opinion

On the Art of Listening to Each Other

By Deborah Meier — September 10, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

I’m in the midst of reading a marvelous book by Danielle Allen called Talking to Strangers. I’d love to discuss it with others. Do read it so we can converse about it soon. Her concept of “political friendships” between strangers intrigues me.

Which relates to my unpleasant encounter between NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg that you refer to in your letter yesterday. The New York Post reported that the mayor’s aides claim: Bloomberg demanded that the Senate’s grant to NYU be redirected it to CUNY, because of … Deborah Meier! My critical stance toward the mayor’s educational policies (the story quoted me as regarding the absence of parent voices in school policy) seemed a sufficient explanation. Why the Senate capitulated, and why The New York Times didn’t report it, and why the mayor’s aides “leaked” this explanation to the media I do not know. What’s more interesting to me is that this public attempt to threaten NYU, by one of the most powerful and richest politicians in America, was apparently seen as uncontroversial. It’s clearly an abridgement of academic freedom, an abuse of his enormous power; and, perhaps above all, so petty. (In fact, I’m “merely” an unpaid—hopefully not un-honored—member of the NYU faculty.)

I’ve always loved NYC’s feistiness, a quality of mind that seems often missing in more laid-back sections of the country. But even New Yorkers can be cowed by the kind of power and intimidation that the Bloomberg oligarchy has exercised for so many years.

Which gets me back to Allen’s argument in favor of bending over backwards to encourage reasoned, thoughtful dialogue between political friends—arguments not crippled by fear of retaliation or retribution by the authority of the State. The habits of a democratic citizenry are precious, and schools are the only institution I know of that might be training grounds for such citizenship. They are both the potential lab and think tank for reasoned discourse—in a climate of friendship and mutual respect. The art of listening to each other requires careful nurturing.

And, of course, reasoning requires judgment—and both require knowledge (including experience).

Which leads me to E.D. Hirsch’s latest book (The Making of Americans). He and I even agree on many matters. But I’m intrigued by the unexamined assumptions we disagree about! He does not even acknowledge any risks inherent in a nationwide imposition of a single year-by-year curriculum. Local school boards, parent organizations, and teachers’ unions can be a pain in the ass (and I speak as one who has been at both ends of each). But I see democracy resting on our reviving these institutions, not in abandoning them. The ease with which we seek to “overcome” unwelcome citizen voices by pushing power ever higher—or to more elite experts—has a long history. It’s not “unreasonable,” just dangerous. “It’s too important to get this right’” is a cry I’ve heard over and over as respected friends seek to circumvent democratic procedures. “We dare not let them vote on this” is not the defense of just fools or demagogues. Yes, democratically delegating some decisions to experts, as well as recognizing when decisions are best made in collaboration with other governmental units, are reasonable objections to placing authority in local democracies. But years of such rationales have led me to be hard-pressed to find places left where ordinary citizens experience decision-making processes. Surely not in many schools. Even hearing each other out is not something we often do in our schools, although we do grow accustomed to not talking back to the textbook, teacher, or principal—more out of boredom (or its uselessness) probably than courtesy. (How rarely do we confront any passionate convictions in our lives in school.)

We’re bad at imagining other ways of seeing the world—and probably always have been. But it is our unique human capacity. While I think that if we devoted the 13 years from K-12th grade to nurturing and training such capacity we’d get better at it, probably it will always be hard. It takes, as does science, mathematics, and the arts, hands-on-practice in a good old-fashioned “apprenticeship.”

Ah, too much rhetoric! There are some wonderful books out by practitioners that describe how we can organize schools that serve both the academic disciplines and democracy better than a “standardized one-size-fits-all” curriculum. Next week.


P.S. The health debate is instructive—reminding us of how difficult it is to engage in serious debate when the stakes are high. But the solution is not to invent a behind-the-scenes, pretend consensus where none exist, as Duncan et al seem to be doing with regard to so-called educational “reform.” For more on meaningful school reform, I highly recommend that readers seek out an excellent opinion piece by Dennis Shirley and Andy Hargreaves that appeared recently in The Boston Globe. Among other things, they write: “Why not choose the bolder paths not yet taken in our educational system’s much-hailed “race to the top’’ and join those schools at the top of the world already?

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.